It’s been an unusual monsoon season across Arizona this year. After both a wet winter and wet spring—with above normal precipitation amounts all the way into the month of May—things went dry. The North American Monsoon started late this year with the first significant rainfall not arriving until the second half of July. This was unfortunate as the dryness partially contributed to a very damaging wildfire (Museum Fire) burning across portions of the San Francisco Peaks.
Just a few days later, the rains finally arrived. And, then, they stopped again. And it has been that way much of this monsoon season. A few days of rain, then a week or more of dry weather. A normal pattern would have rain falling perhaps four days out of seven for a two-month period. Folks around here have dubbed this monsoon the “nonsoon”.
And, of course, with the lack of moisture and thunderstorms opportunities for photographing storms, heavy rain, lightning, and sunsets has been a challenge. But it only takes one great photograph to make it a successful season. I’m still trying to get that photograph.
Here are some of the more interesting photographs from this “nonsoon monsoon” season.
In celebration of this legacy national park’s centennial, the work of some of the country’s most talented photographers is paired with essays by canyon veteran Scott Thybony in a love letter to an irreplaceable place. Like candles on a birthday cake, 100 breathtaking photographs capture the deep and abiding appeal of Grand Canyon—as Thybony so eloquently writes, its “pure geometry of earth and sky.” This book is truly the “collector’s item” for Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial year!
I’m pleased to note that three of my photographs were selected for inclusion in this book.
The first image is an example of not giving up. I was packing up my gear to leave Lipan Point and drive home when a small cumulus appeared. I stopped what I was doing and watched it for awhile and realized that it might become a thunderstorm. So I unpacked the gear and set it up again and waited. The sun went down and then the storm started to produce lightning. And I got this shot of lightning exiting from the top of the storm, heading down in the clear and then going through a layer of low clouds before hitting and illuminating the ground.
The following two images were shot the same day. Thunderstorms were slow to develop but there was this interesting band of clouds just above the horizon. I waited until the sun was behind the clouds and the result was these beautiful beams of light and shadow spreading across the canyon.
Finally, after the sun had set thunderstorms developed across the North Rim of Grand Canyon. There was still plenty of twilight to backlight the storms and to produced some reflected light in the canyon.
“Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it, not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”
You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.
The North American Monsoon arrived in northern Arizona during the first week of July—which is an average start date. Within just a few days, we quickly transitioned from Extreme Fire Danger to High—and within a week or two—to Moderate.
Summer monsoon season is my second storm chase season—the first is in late spring across the High Plains. Second season is more about lightning, clouds with dramatic scenery, and colors at sunset. This July has been a bit more challenging than other seasons but still successful.
Here are some photographs of storms and storm-related activity during July 2018.
Early stage Cumulonimbus
Cumulonimbus over Hart Prairie.
Outflow boundaries and arcus clouds
This complex of storms was moving westward across Wupatki National Monument. I had originally planned to photograph the system from the Doney Mtn. Picnic Area but the system arrived at that location before I did. So I retreated back to US-89 and the entrance to the Monument. Both of these images are panoramas that span the northeast through south. The San Francisco Peaks can be seen at the far right of both images.
Rainbows (and maybe a tornado?)
As convection approached a rainbow developed and I was busy trying to reset the camera to capture the full bow. Only later, when examing the images, did I notice what might be a vortex bisecting the rainbow. Because I did not see it in real time I cannot say whether there was any rotation. It may just be a random bit of cloud debris.
The best part of the thunderstorm season is trying to capture lightning. It’s more than just getting a photograph of lightning—it’s important to get lightning in an interesting location.
Sometimes I chase storms—other times they chase me. We were mountain biking on Observatory Mesa when this thunderstorm developed and enveloped the San Francisco Peaks. It was definitely time to turn around.
Sunset after the storm
And, of course, sunset after the storms can be pretty amazing,
Reflections in pools of water can produce interesting images. Several days of heavy rain resulted in ponds of water at Crescent Moon Picnic Area.
As is typical, rainfall amounts can vary widely over even just a few miles. Here is a map showing the rain gauge amounts for July on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks southward through Flagstaff and beyond. Amounts range from 2.5 to 14.5 inches.
August continues to bring thunderstorms, lightning, and flooding to northern Arizona.
The other day provided a good opportunity to photograph both lightning from thunderstorms and sunset at Grand Canyon. Satellite imagery from the new GOES-16 satellite indicated that skies remained clear across western Arizona as well as southern Nevada and California. This would allow the setting sun to appear below the cloud deck from the thunderstorms and—maybe—create a great sunset with the clouds glowing from below as the sun approached the horizon.
Close, but it didn’t quite happen that way. The clouds never took on that beautiful glow. On the other hand, an abundance of monsoon moisture in the lower atmosphere allowed the sun to create beams of light and shadow through the depths of the canyon. This was at its best when the sun was briefly obscured by some mid-level clouds creating some shadows at my location—but with sunlight streaming into the canyon below.
After the sun had dropped below the horizon the beams were gone, of course, but there was still color in the western sky.
The earlier thunderstorms over the area had dissipated but new storms developed about 50 km to my west. This distance meant the visible bolts were fairly small. I wanted big bolts dropping into the canyon near me. What we want and what we get…well, you know.
The radar image shows my location (circle) and the storms to the northwest.
The lightning images are composites of multiple photographs taken over a period of several minutes. The shutter was left open for 15s for each photograph. Some had multiple lightning bolts while others were dark. Even though it was almost 90 minutes after sunset the photographs were still able to pick up twilight colors on the western horizon.
All in all, an illuminating evening (bad pun intended).